The following is part of a series first introduced here.
Every once in a while I’ll get a sudden flash of memory: coarse padding, cracked vinyl, the feel of a bamboo pole in my hands. It isn’t in my mind’s eye, nor is it even a ‘real’ memory, per se; it is the shadow of movements once practiced, the echo of sticks cracking together in rhythmic pulses haunting the periphery of the mind, having crept up from muscles that once practiced kung fu. To be clear, I barely passed the first level—in part because I kept changing cities, but mostly because I was afraid to really go for it. All my life I was the little one, the one who needed to borrow people for their height or strength. I resented not having the capacity to produce more force. It seemed that no matter how many punches I threw, they were just weak. But, for a time, I threw as many as I could. I was part of a community of people interested in learning a form of movement as best they could, who did not discredit my abilities based on my size. They encouraged me to punch harder, kick higher, and to be guided by my body. I wore soreness like a badge of honor.
During practices we would pair up to hold focus mitts for one another or take turns practicing defensive moves. The deepest bruises usually came from women around my height with their lean, sinewy blows. I didn’t mind, though. It felt like we were honing one another, shaping our reflexes so that, if necessary, we could defend ourselves or a sister. We absorbed one another’s hits because we had already absorbed messages of vulnerability and danger. We knew beyond thought that we lived on the edge of precarious existence, that at any moment a stranger or acquaintance or lover could damage us, or simply end our life. And so we attempted to inscribe another kind of knowing into our bodies in the form of muscle memory.
How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord? Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me. But what place is there in me where my God can enter into me?Confessions, I.ii
Reading through Augustine’s Confessions again, I find his recountings of childhood fascinating, especially alongside his initial query, “Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you?” From the beginning, Augustine plunges us into his dilemma–how (not) to speak of/to God, his spatial/cosmological musings of existing in relation to God and God’s relation to his own interiority. In other words, how is it that we take Godself into the depths of our own, finite beings? Are we even able to articulate the ways by which we may absorb or to be absorbed into God’s very being? His musings on childhood lead to a more sociolinguistic interpretation of human development as he himself focuses on language acquisition–understandable given his training in rhetoric. However, his own words point beyond wordy knowledge, beyond articulated language and even the familiar ‘knowing’ of persons. All this prompted me to think about how and what it is that we absorb during our youth. What all enters into us when it seems like we cannot help but take in our environs, our context, the language(s) by which we come to make sense of the world around us?
Of course, the problem with thinking about a concept as ambiguous and vague as absorption is that, there is no focal point for where to begin. A sponge placed in contact with liquid of any kind sops it up, regardless of what that liquid is. So, too, children cannot help but take in their world moment by moment, be it praise and affirmation or disappointment and abuse. What we take in as children effectively layers the foundation of our future selves, strengths and pitfalls alike. Not only that, there are physical and geographic aspects to childhood that can deeply influence development–everything from the rub of tree bark that offers centering presence and a kind of home, to poisoned dirt playgrounds that diminish life’s longevity. What we absorb as children stays with us for good and for ill.
And so, I turn to Augustine because his confessions are drenched with semiotic overflow amidst the intentional recountings of his youth–and because his writings have been theologically overworked in some very unhelpful ways. I want to hear him anew. Augustine describes how it was his mother’s faith and devotion to God that saturated his very being, even though he himself did not follow the faith until later in life. According to Monica’s wishes, he was nearly baptized in childhood when a severe illness descended on him but, as he states, “My cleansing was deferred on the assumption that, if I lived, I would be sure to soil myself.” (I.xi.17) It was assumed that he would not make it through the rest of childhood and adolescence without committing some series of sins jeopardizing his salvation. In the Protestant tradition in which I was raised, this is an all too familiar sentiment, regardless of whether infant baptism is practiced or not.
For Augustine, childhood was a flipbook of dour teachers, boring texts and silly school boys (himself included), punctuated by canings and admonishments to be a good student. He frames his recollections of disobeying his parents for love of sport in terms of the “pride of winning.” He felt the weight of ambition both parents laid on him to succeed in rhetoric and social standing. He speaks quite openly of his own bad behavior as he draws a continuous line from childhood follies to adult sins. “Is that childish innocence? It is not, Lord, is it? I pray you, my God. Behaviour does not change when one leaves behind domestic guardians and schoolmasters.” (I.xix.30) Throughout his recollections, much of the language of interiority is reserved for addressing God directly. What intellect he has is a gift directly from God. Even his nourishment in infancy from his mother and nurse was essentially God-given. God is always present to Augustine in some form or other, not least of which in the very gift of being. Periodically he describes God’s actions as taking place through Monica, God’s guidance through her voiced concerns. “Then whose words were they but yours which you were chanting in my ears through my mother, your faithful servant?” (II.iii.7) He does not claim to have internalized God during his youth, but does recognize God’s grace in providing moral guardrails, largely in the form of his mother.
In the Confessions, God and Monica are intimately linked even as she is overshadowed by God–to the extent that, according to Bishop Augustine, God alone provided the very breastmilk that fed him as an infant. What he knows or apprehends of God in childhood was mediated through his mother. Is it possible to conceive of the grace of God apart from Monica’s songs, scent, or embrace?
Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me.
What makes the Confessions so intimate is a profound interiority Augustine expresses that is his relationship with Godself. This interiority cannot be read without recognizing the divine maternal face of Monica throughout. We only know Monica through the lens of her son, which at times goes so far as to negate her agency as a mother, as a person. Yet their proximity, her constant presence in his life (well into adulthood) is suggestive of a kind of saturating, assimilating force she must have exuded. Following Augustine’s own example, it is tempting to speak of such influence in rhetorical terms, focusing on texts and language, choices and behaviors. But that would not do justice to the full-bodied catechetical process he experienced under Ambrose (because of her), nor to the abundance of tears shed by Monica during the years prior to his baptism. Even before he sails for Italy, he is soaked in her worries for his salvation, worries that are not unfounded.
In my sixteenth year idleness interposed because of my family’s lack of funds. I was on holiday from all schooling and lived with my parents. The thorns of lust rose above my head, and there was no hand to root them out.Confessions, II.iii (6)
As modern day readers, what do we do with the brash, arrogant, philandering young Augustine? (We might ask, for example, whose tears remain unconfessed?) The rakish behavior he describes is the kind of behavior girls have often been implicitly taught to expect from men in general. The only dissenting voice seems to come from his mother, and even that is qualified–according to Augustine–by her ambition for him to gain status by a strategic marriage. We catch a sense of what messages Augustine had absorbed to normalize and even encourage his lascivious behavior. There’s passing mention of Augustine’s father expressing a sense of pride in the emerging virility of his son after a trip to the bath house. And he describes the one-upmanship of his hooligan companions boasting of their debased sexual exploits. The young Augustine is rendered as no more virtuous than a rowdy frat boy. At this stage it would be easier to discuss how he is likely to be more keen on acts of penetration than the more passive notion of absorption. Yet, here is Augustine the Bishop mediating and recounting his experience as a boy, expressing dismay that, though God was right there with him, he did not take God in. God spoke (through Monica), and he resisted.
I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.Confessions, II.iv (9)
I’ve gone on at length about Augustine because I think it’s important to read him through the faith of Monica, particularly his recollections of youth. The great theologian is utterly drenched in the tears and prayers of his mother. On the one hand, his Confessions illustrate scenes of the biblical salvation story, including his own ‘fall’ into wickedness, as recounted in the pear tree incident. Augustine the Bishop narrates his life in such a way that highlights particular moments and themes as they align with Christian conversion. On the other hand, intentional or otherwise, Monica is the face of God for him, God’s voice who penetrates his very being, the nourishment he takes in from infancy. And so, as I reflect on my own childhood, I recognize that a great deal of faith and theology was absorbed through soggy communion wafers, inhaled with the scent of polyester choir robes, interiorized with the monthly singing of the doxology. Bland as the Reformed tradition could be it stayed with me, even as I took in harmful messages of vulnerability. I was covered by the prayers of many Monicas, my Sunday school teachers, and could hear a whisper of God each time I looked back.